A room full of friends I’d never met

Last week I went to the Australian Science Communicators conference in Sydney. I’ve been to lots of work-related conferences before, but this one felt very different. Perhaps it was because I was presenting my own research, rather than someone elses, for the first time in a long time. But I think the main reason was because I was attending a conference full of friends that I’d never actually met.

Through Twitter, I’ve been lucky enough to have had conversations with a number of people either doing, researching or just interested in science communication in Australia. Some of them I’ve been talking to as long as I’ve been on Twitter, just over a year now, without ever meeting them in person. Although we do talk about science and science communication, for example during #onsci chats, we also talk about music and concerts, tv shows and books, holidays, birthdays, work, families and children. It was amazing and humbling to be greeted as a long lost friend by people I admire.

There’s already a number of links to blogs and other highlights from the conference. The inspiring call to arms to communicate science better by Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb (here) is an important read for anyone interested in science and society.

There’s also live blogging by Kylie Sturgess (here is a link to her post on ‘Science and Social Media’) and a more reflective piece (here) by the Director of the RiAus, Dr Paul Willis. There are probably others I’ve missed. Some of the sessions also have Storify summaries, for example the session on ‘The Consultancy Game‘ compiled by Sarah Keenihan.

For me there are a few things that have stayed with me since returning home.

The first is that there seems to be a paradigm shift in the way we are thinking about evaluating and researching science communication activities. Several years ago I was a science communicator, with a science background, working on a program that had been devised by a scientist. I quickly realised that the complex way science is supported, ignored or used by society is not a scientific phenomenon. It is a social one, and there are a growing number of people who are using approaches from social science and other disciplines to investigate how people engage with scientific issues. I look forward to learning more from them.

The second is the connection between science and art. One of the highlights of the conference for me was the ‘Science as Art’ exhibition organised by Kate Paterson (and I’ll be ordering a t-shirt with the people’s choice winning image ‘Descent of Chicken’  by James Hutson ASAP). But as the connection between art and science came up from time to time it started to feel like a ‘new thing’ and I started to wonder when the connection was lost. For me, there has always been art in science (think botany), art in science communication (think diagrams and illustration), art inspired by science (think Escher) and of course science IN art (think pigment chemistry, conservation and new tools and techniques). Perhaps what we need to be doing is promoting (and supporting) science more broadly as a creative and cultural activity.

Thirdly, perhaps there was a missed opportunity to look closely at some of the emerging science-based issues and to use our collective expertise to devise ways of engaging the community. The last session I went to was on the ‘War on Science’ where we critiqued some science communication issues and it struck me that the collective experience within the ASC is phenomenal.

Finally, I’ve seen how Twitter can become intergrated into the fabric of a conference – not just to connect people BEFORE the conference, but also during and after. During the conference several tweeps broadcast highlights to their networks, allowing people within ‘our community’ who could not be there in person to participate. Others used Twitter to reflect, pose questions or provide links to examples which could be followed up at a later date. Of course there was some ‘back of the classroom’ stuff, but that all added to the conference experience. Several people started tweeting at the conference and the conversations are continuing still, a week later, on the conference hashtag #ASC2012. I have become amazed at how Twitter can be used as a platform for ‘communities of practice’.

All in all it was an inspiring and fulfilling event, perhaps best summed up by this tweet by @upulie:

… and what could be better than that!

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6 thoughts on “A room full of friends I’d never met

  1. I’ve been reading a book published in 1989, ‘A Question of Commitment: Australian Literature in the Twenty Years After the War’ by Susan McKernan. For one way to forge a relationship between science and art the chapter on A.D. Hope, the Australian poet of the 30s, 40s & 50s, provides a guide. I’ve never read Hope but after reading this chapter I will be looking him up. McKernan’s insights are valuable, especially her illustration of how the notion of ‘commitment’ at that time differs in nature from what artists are supposed to provide us with nowadays. Of course, the political landscape has changed radically since then. In McKernan’s own day, a similar notion of being ‘engage’ (the French word) was current, and and even that now seems quaint. Hope was notable in his time for his secular bent, and believed that the artist was, in a way, the same as the scientist.

  2. This was one conference where twitter was embraced by many including me. My comments and questions were responded to, and I learned more than I otherwise would have just listening to the lectures. It was also terrific to meet face to face people I’ve followed in the twitterverse.

    1. I agree Vicki. Twitter allowed us to ask ‘Am I the only one thinking this?’ – and often we weren’t!

  3. It annoys me how compartmentalised our world is! It’s one of the reasons I’ve not joined a professional body (up until now). As a Marketing Communications professional, do I become a member of the Marketing Institute? The Public Relations Institute? The Aus Market Research Society? The Writers and Editors guild? The Advertising Federation? Why can’t the kids in the sandpit just share toys nicely?

    1. I agree. That’s why I much prefer the ‘communities of practice’ idea and the groups that emerge from a common interest. Not sure how you’d manage membership though 😉

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